Remarks at a UN General Assembly Tribute to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
December 12, 2016


Before I begin, let me join the President of the General Assembly and others in thanking the Deputy Secretary-General for his truly remarkable service. We have every expectation that you will continue to carry the UN Charter in your pocket for the rest of time and continue to do as you have done your entire your career, which is to advance the principals within it. We thank you. [Applause]

Let me also thank Mrs. Ban for her exemplary service, or the compassion that she exudes everywhere she goes, and also – perhaps less heralded – for her sacrifice and that of her family. It’s not easy to marry into a job like this one, but you have shown nothing but grace from the beginning. Thank you. [Applause]

Now, if one were to have bet on the likelihood of a child becoming Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon would have been a long shot at best. Ban does not speak often of himself or of his upbringing, but his journey to this position was a remarkable one.

He was born in May 1944 in Sangdong Number 1, a village of approximately one hundred people, named to distinguish it from nearby Sangdong Number 2, another tiny, rural village. To this day, Secretary-General Ban does not know his exact birthdate. His parents had lost infants before him, so they decided they would not get a birth certificate unless he survived his first month.

Secretary-General Ban was born into a world torn apart by conflict – first as a baby at the end of the Second World War, and then, of course, as child during the Korean War, which erupted when he was just five years old. Months into the fighting, Ban’s parents fled with him and his newborn sister to a remote home that Ban’s grandparents had in the mountains. It was January – the peak of winter – and the house was only reachable by foot. The family trekked for miles through the snow, without boots or warm clothes, until they eventually reached the secluded house. From there, a young Ban watched as fighter jets bombed nearby towns and cities. “We were safe,” he would later recall, “but we were poor and hungry.”

When the war ended and Ban’s family returned to their home village, he saw a UN flag for the very first time. Upon returning to school, he was given a textbook created by the UN Korean Reconstruction Agency, as well as food and clothes, which helped his family as they struggled to get back on their feet. He would later say that he remembered feeling as though “the United Nations was a beacon of hope for all Korean people.” That idea – that the United Nations should serve as a beacon of hope for the world’s most vulnerable people – has clearly never left him.

In 1962, when Ban was just 18 years old, he won a competition organized by the American Red Cross to tour the United States with a group of international students. Ban at that time had never left the rural area where he had grown up, never mind his country, but that August he boarded his first flight to America. On August 29, he and students from 41 other countries visited the White House, where they were greeted on the South Lawn by then-President John F. Kennedy. It was a tense time in the world, as the United States and the Soviet Union were competing for primacy, yet Kennedy told the young representatives that he felt a great sense of hope in seeing this global mix assembled there together.

“I think it’s most encouraging,” Kennedy told young Ban and the others, “to have people from so many different countries, including countries where the government leaders don’t always get on, but the people do.” Kennedy encouraged the students to dedicate themselves to serving those in need, a cause in which, he said, “there are no national boundaries…only a question of whether we can extend a helping hand.”

Secretary-General Ban would later say of that meeting, “Even as a young man who didn’t know much about the world, I was able to understand something crucial about the values of humanity from President Kennedy.” It was a turning point, the Secretary-General Ban would later write, “Kennedy’s words that day on the South Lawn sparked my decision to become a diplomat and dedicate myself to public service” – this is a path from which the Secretary-General has never strayed.

I share these moments from Secretary-General Ban’s early life today because, in them, we can see at least the origins of so many of the qualities that would define him as a leader – someone who, in one of the most tumultuous periods in the UN’s seven-decade history, has continued to try to strengthen this institution and has championed the cause of solving the world’s problems together. Let me touch very briefly on three of those qualities.

First, is the abiding belief that nobody anywhere should be left behind. We are all equal. We are all equally entitled to our rights. Secretary-General Ban made this part of his core argument for the Sustainable Development Goals – one of the most important achievements of his tenure – which he said are in fact “all based on a single, guiding principle: to leave no one behind.” His own upbringing taught him the importance of giving people , particularly young people living in places ravaged by war and poverty, hope – hope of being able to improve their lives. The Secretary-General understands this because he lived it, experiencing first-hand many of the hardships that we diplomats here can only imagine – such as true hunger, cold, and the deep-seated fear of being obliterated by an airstrike or picked up by enemy soldiers. And that, I believe, is why he takes it personally when he believes that we here at the UN are not doing all we can to, as he put it, “extend a helping hand” to people in such desperate situations. He can see himself in those in need because he has been there. There but for the grace of God go I. Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

The second is the idea President Kennedy planted that day in 1962 of service – serving others, the ultimate calling. You see this unflagging devotion across Secretary-General Ban’s work, but perhaps none so much as in his determined relentless effort to curb climate change. After all, what is a true reform of being for others than convincing people around the world to make changes that will preserve our planet for future generations? Not only did he possess absolute clarity about the existential threat that climate change poses, and the urgent need to take action to stop it; he also invested all of his diplomatic energy in persuading countries to negotiate and then to sign onto the Paris agreement, helping it cross over the threshold to come into force far swifter than any of us had thought possible . On behalf of our children and our children’s children, we will never be able to thank the Secretary-General enough for those efforts, and we owe to those generations to ensure that the agreement is implemented in full by all countries.

The third is the way Ban has defended the dignity of the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. Examples of this abound. Others have touched on many, including the unprecedented decision under his leadership to open the gates of UN bases in South Sudan to admit thousands of civilians fleeing mass atrocities. But none is more ground breaking than the stand he took on behalf of protecting the equal rights and dignity of LGBTI people. Ban Ki-moon did not come into the job of Secretary-General as a champion of LGBTI rights. As he said himself, “Growing up in the Republic of Korea, we didn’t talk about sexual orientation or gender identity.” But, when he heard the way LGBTI people were discriminated against because of who they are and who they love – bullied by classmates and neighbors, fired from jobs, denied basic services, and physically attacked or even killed – he became a zealous defender of their rights. He spoke out against leaders who fanned hatred, and he spoke directly to LGBTI people who were under attack, telling them, “You are not alone…Any attack on you is an attack on the universal values the United Nations and I have sworn to defend and uphold.” This wasn’t popular with some – with many in fact – but it mattered enormously to real people facing real and sometimes mortal threats.

These achievements show what a difference the leadership of a Secretary General can make when it comes to tackling some of the gravest threats and most intractable-seeming problems. We are fully confident that António Guterres will build on these efforts as the UN’s new Secretary General, and we congratulate him on his imminent swearing in today. He is the man for the job in such challenging times.

Let me conclude. In 1962, speaking to that group of international students on the White House lawn, President Kennedy said, “What hopes we can have for the future are in all of you.” Who could have thought that among those kids was an 18-year-old from South Korea who, in his first trip outside the country, would find the inspiration that would set him on a path to one day becoming the Secretary-General of the United Nations? A boy who had grown up in poverty, in a war-torn country, whose circumstances otherwise gave no indication that he would have the chance to play such a leading role in addressing the greatest challenges of our time? It is a trajectory that affirms why we do what we do at the United Nations.

It is remarkable to think how many kids there are out there – whether it is the girl in a rural village who, as a result of the Sustainable Development Goals, will be the first in her family to finish secondary school; or the boy living on a Pacific Island, whose home may not be now submerged in water in the future, as a result of the Paris climate agreement; or the LGBTI teenager who – in spite of what her parents and her classmates and her government tell her – believes for the first time that she is entitled to be treated with the same basic dignity as everyone else, and to have the same rights – imagine all of those children out there who, as a result of this man’s leadership – Ban Ki-moon’s leadership – over the last decade, who will have hope that they otherwise would not have had. And just think what a difference that hope – their hope – our hope – will make in shaping the future of our world for the better. We are so grateful to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his service and for doing so much to make the United Nations into the beacon of hope he has always seen it to be.

I thank you. [Applause]